April 23, 2014
Jesus says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
What does He mean by that?
How does He exemplify that?
Consider what He says to His disciples in Mark 10:29-30. Jesus has just told the rich young ruler to sell all he has, to give the proceeds to the poor, to have riches in heaven, and to come and follow Him. The ruler instead walks away. Peter, astounded that poor fishermen are more obedient than this rich man, has just said, “We have left everything and followed you.”
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life (Mark 10:29-30).
What does He mean?
There are those who say, “Just read it to see what it means: ‘100 times more in this life.’ So if you give $1000, you will get $100,000.” Then, when you give the $1000 and don’t receive the $100,000, they will suppose that there is some sin in your life, or some lack of faith, that keeps God from fulfilling His promise.
But we only have to look at these disciples listening to Jesus to know He could not have meant, “Give in one currency and you will be sure to receive a hundred times more in the same currency.” James, for example, gave up all to follow Jesus, as Peter just said. But one of the Herods kills James (Acts 12:2). He never received a hundred times more goods than he gave up.
- When I give, what am I giving?
- When I receive, what am I receiving?
- Why is giving so blessed?
2 Corinthians 8 and 9 is very helpful on this point. We’ll see that when we give, we are not primarily giving money. When we receive, we are not primarily receiving money.
Indeed, this mistaken conception of giving as primarily concerning money or material goods distorts much of our thinking. For we tend to think that the person who has an excess of money is the person who is able to give the most. He’s not losing much proportionately. He doesn’t have to give up much else in order to give to others. That is, the opportunity cost of giving is lower for him. So such a person can give with joy. But if I’m just barely paying my bills, I can’t give much of anything – I have nothing to spare! It would be too costly for me to give. So I can’t give with joy.
That view is not Scriptural view at all. Of the many errors in those thoughts, we’ll highlight one today: It misunderstands the currency of giving and receiving.
About fifteen years ago I was in the Philippines on a business trip. This was when ATMs first became available for foreign transactions in southeast Asia. I inserted my card, and magically Philippine pesos came out. The machine then gave me the option of checking my balance. Curious to see how much Beth had spent in my absence, I punched the button. The machine gave the balance: about 200,000.
Startled, I wondered: Where did all this money come from? I even checked the account number to see if perchance the ATM had linked me to the wrong account. After seeing that it was indeed my own account, I finally realized that the machine was giving me my balance not in terms of US dollars but in terms of Philippine pesos. And at the time, the exchange rate of pesos to dollars was about 40-1, which made the balance of the account not $200,000 but $5,000; about what I had expected.
If you’re checking your bank balance, you need to know the currency of the balance. Just so: In every biblical passage that concerns giving and receiving, you need to know the currency the author is speaking of. Indeed, even within one verse, sometimes different currencies are used.
With that in mind, let’s turn our attention to 2 Corinthians 8. Recall that at this time, the church in Jerusalem was quite poor, partly as a result of persecution, and partly as a result of a famine and economic downturn in the region. So in general, the new Christians in Greece and in what is now Turkey were better off financially than the believers in Jerusalem. So the Apostle Paul arranges to collect money from these new, Gentile believers for the Jerusalem church. He mentions this collection in 1 Corinthians 16, asking them to set aside money on the first of every week. Evidently that collection started well but then slowed down. Here in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 he asks the church to complete “this grace.” His wider discussion is invaluable for understanding true Christian giving.
True Christian Giving: Four Observations
Let’s read the passage in a literal, rather wooden translation, which I hope will help you to follow Paul’s argument. I’ve used English words with the same root when Paul uses Greek words with the same root. Note also that I’ve translated a Greek word you may know, koinonia, as “partnership.” Because verse 8 is something of a parenthesis, I’ve left it out here:
We make known to you, brothers, the grace of God given in the churches of Macedonia, for in the midst of a great testing of affliction, the abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded unto the riches of their sincere concern. For according to their power and, I bear witness, beyond their power of their own accord with strong appeal they begged us for the grace and partnership of ministry to the saints. And they went beyond what we had even hoped: They gave themselves first to the Lord and to us by the will of God. So we appealed to Titus, that just as he started, just so he might complete this grace among you. But just as you abound in all things – in faith and in word and in knowledge and in all diligence and in our love for you – abound in this grace also. . . . For you know the grace of our lord Jesus, that for you he became poor, being rich, in order that you by his poverty might become rich.
For our purposes, the biggest difference with common English translations is found in verse 9. Virtually all English translations render this, “Though he was rich, he became poor for you.” The Greek has no word for “though,” instead just using a participle, as rendered above: “being rich, he became poor.” We’ll consider below the common translation, “though he was rich,” and suggest an alternative, which is equally possible grammatically, “Because He was rich.”
But first, four observations on true Christian giving from verses 1 to 7:
1) What is the first gift Paul mentions?
Not the gift the Macedonians give to the church in Jerusalem. Instead, the grace given by God to the Macedonians. They received grace from God and then they gave. After verse 1, Paul repeats the word “grace” in verses 3, 6, 7, and 9. Look at verse 7. What does Paul want the Corinthians to excel in? “This grace.” (Note that the words “act of” are added by the ESV, and the words “of giving” are added by the NIV).
So the first observation: True Christian giving results from grace given by God. True Christian giving is the result of God working in us – not the result of pressure tactics, of emotional appeals, or of making people feel guilty.
2) Did the Macedonians give out of their abundance?
Be careful here! The answer is both yes and no.
In financial terms, they gave out of their poverty, not out of their abundance. They did not have an excess, and then decide to give that extra since they didn’t need it. Paul even says they gave out of their “extreme poverty.”
But they did give out of an abundance – an abundance of what? Verse 2: An abundance of joy! Their identity was in God, their security was in God, their joy was in God – and so they gave generously of their meager resources. So the second observation: True Christian giving results from the overflow of joy in God.
3) What overflowed from this abundance?
Be careful again. Look at verse 2. Paul does not say, “Their abundance of joy overflowed with their giving lots of money.” Verse 3 implies they gave more money than Paul ever thought possible. But his main point is not the amount of money. What did overflow? In the ESV: “A wealth of generosity.” Two months ago we looked in detail at the meaning of the word the ESV translates “generosity,” and saw that it has rather different connotations from the English word. If a billionaire gave $100,000 to DGCC, that would certainly be a generous act according to the definition of the English word. But we would have to discern the inner motivation for the gift in order to apply the Greek word to the act. We saw that the Greek word here means, “sincere concern, with no ulterior motives.” The word is thus related to love. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:3:
If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
So the third observation: True Christian giving is motivated by sincere concern, by love. We are not giving in order to get out of an awkward situation; we are not giving in order to get our names on a building or to impress others. We are motivated by sincere concern.
4) What did the Macedonians give first? Again, the answer is not “money.” Verse 5: The gave themselves first. They gave up their own selfish, individualistic goals. They offered their bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God. They were transformed through the renewing of their minds. Thus, their identity, security, and joy were in God and in His work. They were so completely devoted to Him, that they begged Paul for the privilege of being a part of God’s work.
So four key principles:
- True Christian giving is a grace of God.
- True Christian giving results from the overflow of joy in God.
- True Christian giving is motivated by love, by sincere concern.
- True Christian giving begins by giving yourself to God.
Again and again Paul goes out of his way to emphasize he is not primarily talking about money.
There are other currencies of giving and receiving here, other interactions between believers and other believers, between believers and God.
Jesus’ Example of Giving
Now let’s walk through verse 9 more slowly to understand what Paul says here. We’ll do this in four steps:
1) How does verse 9 support Paul’s command in verse 7?
Verse 9 begins with the word “for,” indicating Paul is supporting an earlier statement – the command that concludes verse 7, “Abound in this grace also.” However we interpret verse 9, it has to answer the question: Why should the Corinthians abound in this grace?
2) Jesus’s poverty
Paul says that we become rich through Jesus’ poverty. What aspect of Jesus’ poverty makes us rich?
Not His material poverty. He was poor materially – but we don’t have riches because He owned very little. Rather, we benefit because He humbled Himself – He became man, He was mocked and beaten, He was crucified dead and buried. That aspect of Jesus’ poverty makes us rich.
3) Our riches
What kind of riches does Jesus gain for us?
There is a sense in which we gain material riches; the New Testament calls us heirs of the world! But the emphasis in the New Testament is never on those material riches. Yes, the streets of the New Jerusalem are said to be paved with gold – but who ever pays attention to the pavement, as long as it supports you? What is central in the New Jerusalem is God dwelling with His people in their midst.
So the riches Jesus gains for us are relational riches – the riches of being adopted into His family, of being His beloved children. Even when we think of ourselves as heirs, the emphasis is not on, “Oh, boy, I’m an heir – think of all the material goods I will inherit!” but rather, “I am so loved by Him that He provides an abundance of all things for my good.”
And there is more: We have the relational riches of being God’s children, and the relational riches of being united with all those in the body of Christ. He has broken down the “dividing wall of hostility.” He has made one those from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.
We saw this in microcosm last night as we said goodbye to our friends Sunil and Jerlin. There were close to fifty people present, from seven different countries; fewer than one-third of us were white Americans. And, as all present will attest, there was real relational richness in that room.
So now let’s take what we’ve learned, and apply these lessons to verse 9, substituting these ideas into the verse:
For you know the grace of our lord Jesus Christ, that for you he became poor – in becoming man, suffering, dying on cross . . . in order that you by his poverty might become rich relationally: that is, so that you might be adopted into God’s family, so that He might be Abba, Father to you, so that you might be His heir, so that you might have relational riches with others as part of His body.
That seems to make sense. We seem to be on the right track.
There’s one more point we need to investigate to fill out the verse.
4) The link between Jesus’ riches and His poverty
In what sense is Jesus rich?
Of course, all things are His!
But what means most to him? What constitutes His true riches?
Surely the primary answer is: His relationship with the Father. And the secondary answer is: His relationship with His Bride, the church.
That is, Jesus’ riches are in the same currency as ours: Relational riches with God the Father, and relational riches with His people.
So what is the link between Jesus’ riches and His poverty? That is, what is verse 9 saying?
Let’s consider the traditional translation of the verse. That is, for “being rich” substitute “though He was rich.” But then substitute what we’ve seen about Jesus’ riches and poverty: His riches are relational, and His poverty is becoming man and dying on the cross:
Though Jesus was loved by His Father, he humbled himself and died on the cross, so that we by that act might be loved by the Father.
That doesn’t make any sense. “Though” is not an appropriate way to understand the participle when you substitute what type of riches Jesus has, and what type of poverty makes us rich.
“Though” makes sense if His riches and poverty are in the same currency, since we don’t expect a rich man to give away all his money and become poor. But when we see that Jesus’ riches and poverty in this verse must be in different currencies, the translation “though” makes no sense.
Furthermore, “though” makes no sense as an explanation for why the Corinthians should strive to “abound in this grace” (verse 7).
But now think of the command at the end of verse 7 together with verse 9. And let’s substitute “because” for “though. ”
We’ll do this in two stages. First, let’s just add the idea of different currencies:
Abound in this grace also. . . . For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for you he became poor [in one currency] because he was rich [in another currency], so that you by his poverty might become rich [in that same currency].
Now that makes sense. Paul tells the Corinthians to abound in the grace that is so clearly manifest among the Macedonians, the same grace that we see manifest in the Lord Jesus Christ.
So now let’s replace simply the idea of different currencies with the currencies of Jesus’ riches and poverty that we’ve already identified. Paul tells the Corinthians:
Abound in this grace also. . . . For you know the grace of our lord Jesus, that because He was loved by the Father, he became man and died on the cross for you, so that you thereby might be loved by the Father.
So do you see how verse 9 supports Paul’s command? Paul is saying: “Be like Jesus! Be full of grace! Show sincere concern!”
That is: Know who you are in Christ! Know you have all joy in Him. United with Him, you are rich relationally, so give yourselves first completely to God, and then give of yourselves out of sincere concern for others. Give like Jesus – knowing that even if you give away all you have, even if you give up all your time, even if you give up all your emotional energy, you always have the Father, you are always His child, you are always in his intimate family.
Lessons for True Christian Giving
Clearly Paul’s main point to the Corinthians and to us is not, “Give more money” or “give more time.” We may need to end up doing so. But that’s not his main point.
We’ve already noted the four observations from verses 1 to 7:
- True Christian giving is a grace of God.
- True Christian giving results from the overflow of joy in God.
- True Christian giving is motivated by love, by sincere concern.
- True Christian giving begins by giving yourself to God.
What lessons can we draw particularly from verse 9?
True Christian giving results from our taking on the character of Christ.
True Christian giving is one aspect of becoming Christlike. Like Jesus, we are to have such confidence in our identity in Christ, in our security in Him, we are to have so much joy in Him, God’s surpassing grace is to be so manifest in our lives, that we love, we have sincere concern, and so we give.
True Christian giving is not an obligation you have to an institution. It is not a requirement laid on you to maintain membership in an organization. It is not primarily a budgeting decision.
Rather, as Romans 8:29 says, if you are in Christ God predestined you to be conformed to the image of His Son.
True Christian giving is a result of that work – the result of a life transformed by God, a life conformed to the image of Christ, so that He might be the firstborn among many brothers.
Thus, clearly true Christian giving concerns not only money, not even primarily money, but love.
Jesus says, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
And He says:
No one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, . . . will not receive a hundredfold now in this time.
What then is the currency of giving?
On the surface, giving may be in the currencies of money, of goods, or of time.
But underneath, true Christian giving is always in the currency of grace, of love.
What then is the currency of our receiving?
No, we don’t give $1000 and have a guarantee that we will then receive $100,000. Instead, we receive something much more valuable than $100,000 – we receive returns in a much more valuable currency.
We receive joy. When we give material goods, we receive at least 100 times more joy than we would have received by selfishly holding on to those goods. We receive love. We receive relational riches. We receive our identity in Christ.
This is the Gospel, my friends. We had none of that. We rebelled against our Creator, and, separated from Him, we were strangers to all true joy. But Jesus – because He was rich relationally with His Father – became poor. That is, He humbled Himself, He submitted to mocking, scourging, and crucifixion. He died, taking on Himself the penalty you and I deserve, so that you by that poverty might become rich. You, by His work on the cross, might become what God created you to be: Filled with His joy. Conformed to the image of Christ. A giver of grace – like Jesus.
We’re not here to tell you, “Give more so we can build a building. Give more so we can increase our budget.”
God the Father offers you relational riches and joy beyond imagining through Jesus. Come to Him! Give yourself first to Him!
And then: Live out what He is like – to His glory and for Your joy.
April 11, 2014
What is the great commandment, according to Jesus?
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).
When are we to love God in this way? During a Sunday morning worship service? Yes, but not only then. Surely Jesus means, “Love God with all your being every minute of every day.”
The Apostle Paul commands us, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
What is to be done to the glory of God? All that we do – even mundane, daily, seemingly trivial activities like eating and drinking. All is to be done to the glory of God.
Love God with all your being every minute of every day. Do everything to His glory – from eating toast to studying math to working at the office.
With those imperatives in mind, consider these questions:
- How do I love God with all my being while watching Kentucky play UConn, or while watching Downton Abbey?
- How do I climb Crowders Mountain to the glory of God?
- How do I sit on my back porch, enjoying the cool evening to the glory of God?
The Apostle Paul tells Timothy, “God richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). Isn’t it then good, right, and proper for us to enjoy what God has given us?
The answer is “yes – but.” We’ll look at both the strong Scriptural support for enjoying God’s good gifts, and the accompanying Scriptural qualifications.
In this series, “Where Do You Find Identity, Security, and Joy: A Scriptural Understanding of Money, Giving, and Material Possessions,” we’ve seen that all we have, including every possession, every skill, every ability, even every minute of time, is a grant from God to be used for His glory. If this is so:
- Should I buy a flatscreen TV?
- Should I buy new car?
- Should I buy tickets to Panthers game?
- Should I watch the NCAA basketball men’s championship game tomorrow night?
- Should I hike Crowders Mountain?
- Should I sit on the porch and enjoy the evening?
As we’ve said time and again, you can’t possibly get the right answers unless you ask the right questions. I aim here to help you ask the right questions, and thus to be able to answer questions such as those above for yourself.
1) God Richly Provides Us With Everything
Let’s begin by considering more closely the Apostle’s phrase from 1 Timothy 6:17: “God richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” What does “richly provide” mean?
It means, in part, that He provides us with an abundance. In particular, He provides us with much, much more than we deserve – for we deserve death. He instead gives us:
- Life itself
- The ability to work
- Whatever material possessions we have
- Most of all, He gives us the Gospel, the invitation to be reconciled to Him forever, to find our true identity as His children, His heirs.
But “richly provide” means more than “to provide an abundance.” He provides this abundance to a good end.
Consider these passages:
- Psalm 103:5 [God] satisfies you with good so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
- Matthew 7:11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
- James 1:17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
To provide for us richly is to provide abundantly, for our good. Thus we can say with David:
My cup overflows. Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life. And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever (Psalm 23:5b-6 NAS)
So that is what it means. But why does God do it? What does He intend to accomplish by providing for us richly?
First, He rejoices to do His children good. God rejoices in our joy in receiving His gift.
We see some of this in our own families. Those of you who are parents of older children, think back to Christmases with a four-year-old. Such Christmases are always delightful. The child has enough memory of the previous Christmas to be really excited about it, but these memories are vague and shadowy enough that everything is sparklingly fresh. Beth and I had great joy those six Christmases in sharing the joy of our four-year-olds.
Scripture speaks specifically of God’s great joy in doing good for His people. Of the many passages we could look at, let’s turn to Jeremiah 32. The book of Jeremiah as a whole emphasizes the coming destruction of Jerusalem because of the hard-hearted disobedience of the people. Yet God promises that He will bring the people back to the Land – and, even more than that, He promises in chapter 31 that He will establish a New Covenant in which He will write His Law on the hearts of His people. Chapter 32 echoes these New Covenant promises:
And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. 39 I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. 40 I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. 41 I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul (Jeremiah 32:38-41, emphasis added).
God richly provides us with all things to enjoy because He rejoices in doing us good
Pause there. That may seem obvious. But let it sink in.
The God of the universe, the Creator of the vast expanse of the heavens, the Creator of the 7 billion people alive today, delights to do you good. He not only does you good. He rejoices to do so.
Before we look at other reasons God has for His rich provision, consider briefly one way God does us good: He restores our energy. He refreshes us. Again, as Psalm 23 tells us: “He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul.”
This has implications for the questions we posed at the outset. For while God may restore our energy through the Scriptures, or through a wonderful time of prayer, He may also do that through some form of enjoyment or recreation: Reading a good book, watching a movie, going on a hike, going out to dinner.
A second reason that God provides for us richly is to spark gratitude and thankfulness. The Apostle writes Timothy:
Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving (1 Timothy 4:4).
Everything God created can and should spark thanksgiving on our part. The same Apostle tells us elsewhere that we eat in honor of the Lord – that is, to the glory of the Lord – when we truly give thanks to Him for the food (Romans 14:6).
Jesus Himself lived this out. He consistently gave thanks to the Father. Nine verses in the New Testament refer to Jesus giving thanks for food.
So we have part of the answer to the question: How do we eat and drink to the glory of God? We acknowledge that everything morsel we eat is a good gift from Him, that we are completely dependent on Him for life and every provision, and so we give thanks.
A third reason that God provides for us richly is to spark adoration and praise. He gives to us so that we might praise Him.
Now, we must be careful here. Scripture does not say, “He gives to us so that we might adore Him instead of enjoying the gift.” Rather, the Bible emphasizes time and again that there is no conflict between our joy and our adoring Him. Indeed, the two are closely intertwined. As the psalmist says,
The peoples must praise you, O God,
all the peoples must praise you.
The nations must be glad and sing for joy. (Psalm 67:3-4a, own translation)
Psalm 35 is especially helpful here”
Let those who delight in my righteousness shout for joy and be glad and say evermore, “Great is the LORD, who delights in the welfare of his servant!” 28 Then my tongue shall tell of your righteousness and of your praise all the day long (Psalm 35:27-28).
When we recognize that God Himself delights in our welfare, we rejoice in what He has done, and we rejoice in Who He is – we tell of His praise all the day long.
So C.S. Lewis, reflecting on such biblical truths, writes:
I have tried . . . to make every pleasure into a channel of adoration. . . .
Gratitude exclaims, very properly, “How good of God to give me this.” Adoration says: “What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations [that is, flashes of light] are like this!” One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.” (Letters to Malcolm, p.89-90)
Think of these first three reasons for God’s rich provision together: God rejoices to do us good, He richly provides to spur thanksgiving, and He provides so that we might praise and adore Him. A key dynamic in moving from His gifts to our right response is to see everything good in our lives as tokens of His love.
Here is my wedding ring. It has some value simply because it is made from gold. I could take it to one of these shops offering to buy gold, and they would give me some money in exchange for it.
But I’m not tempted to do that! Why not?
For me, the value of the ring is far, far greater than the value of the gold it’s made of. The ring is a token of Beth’s love for me, a picture of 34 years of her faithfulness to our marriage covenant, a reminder of who she is and how deeply she loves me.
Just so with all pleasures, with all God’s good gifts. Yes, each has some value in and of itself. Sitting on the porch on a spring evening is a joy! But the value of that pleasure is far, far greater when we see it as a token of God’s love, as a gift from Him symbolizing His lovingkindness, and all that entails.
The fourth reason God provides for us richly is a bit more challenging to see: Our joy itself can be adoration of Him.
To flesh this out, and to distinguish this fourth reason from the third, imagine sitting on my porch this evening. There’s a light breeze. The birds are chirping. We’re enjoying a beautiful sunset.
If we then subsequently think, “God is behind all this. This evening, these chairs, the breeze, the birds, the sunset are gifts from Him for us! What type of God grants such gifts to His children!” That’s an example of the third reason. The pleasure leads to adoration of Him.
The fourth reason is different. Lewis argues that ideally the adoration should be automatic: Not, “The sunset is startling beautiful,” and then, “I adore you God for creating such a joy.” Rather, he compares the right response to reading: I look at a printed page and observe the word “cat.” I am not at all conscious of a series of thoughts such as, “This pattern of dots is pronounced C A T,” and only then, “That stands for a furry, quasi-domesticated animal one of which I have owned for 17 years.” That’s not how it works. Instead, I see “cat” and immediately think of the animal – indeed, I immediately think of Madison jumping up into my lap.
Something similar should happen whenever we experience pleasure, suggests Lewis. Adoration of God is to become so natural to us that we adore Him as we experience any pleasure. Thus he writes:
This sweet air whispers of the country from whence it blows. It is a message. We know we are being touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures for evermore. There need be no question of thanks or praise as a separate event, something done afterwards. To experience the tiny theophany [that is, the tiny experience of God] is itself to adore. (Letters to Malcolm, p. 90)
I believe Lewis is right. While I can’t point to a verse of Scripture that says this explicitly, I encourage you: Read the Gospels with this idea in mind. In particular, look at Jesus. Consider the way He lived. Note His consistent adoration of God the Father. I think Lewis has captured a key element of Jesus’ life.
Indeed, this is a key part of what it means to do all to the glory of God, what it means to love God with all our being: To be so wired that we see God’s hand behind even the simplest joys, and so to adore Him in every experience.
So God richly provides us with all things to enjoy. He delights to do us good. We are to respond with thanksgiving, adoration, and praise.
2) The Pleasure Trap
But pleasure often does not prompt thanksgiving, adoration, and praise to God. Instead, pleasure can be a dangerous trap. The very gifts God provides to generate thanksgiving and adoration can turn our hearts away from Him, away from our greatest good.
Let’s consider four ways that pleasure can work to our detriment instead of to our good.
First, pleasure can be a distraction.
Pleasure, entertainment, amusement obviously can dominate our spending, and thus lead us not to save enough, not to give enough, not to provide enough for our families. That is a form of distraction.
But also, pleasure can distract us from the reality of the world around us. Astute cultural observers have commented on this danger from a secular viewpoint for decades. George Orwell in 1984 and Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 both imagine societies in which the government seduces large segments of the population with amusements so that they don’t recognize their slavery and rebel. In non-fiction, Neil Postman’s prophetic 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death highlights factors which have only grown stronger in the last two decades.
We see similar points in Scripture. For example, the Preacher in Ecclesiastes writes:
Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure. . . . Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11)
We do this, don’t we? We experience sorrow, and we try to distract ourselves from that painful reality. Through amusements or drink , we pretend the events didn’t really happen, and succeed in fooling ourselves for a time.
The most important distraction is away from God Himself. There is an irony here, for as we have seen God intends all pleasures to point to Him. Yet one way we often avoid thinking about God, about eternity, about our obligations to Him, about our status before Him, is to distract ourselves with pleasures: a video game, a sporting event, a novel, a movie, a TV show.
Pleasures can be a distraction from reality.
Second, pleasure can lead to nothing else.
We’ve seen that our pleasures should be pointers to God, tokens of his love, leading to thanksgiving and adoration. But often they do not. We easily become so enamored with the pleasure, we miss what the pleasure should point to. We, in effect, delight in looking at our wedding rings – rejoicing in the gold, in the shape, in the sparkle – and forget all about our spouses.
This myopia, this forgetfulness, is characteristic of children. When receiving gifts, it is easy for kids to delight in the gift itself, forgetting even to give thanks to the giver. Children often need to be trained to be thankful. Just so, we need to leave such childish ways behind, recognizing the One behind every pleasure.
Third, pleasure can lead to dissatisfaction.
This trap comes about when, instead of rejoicing in the moment, thanking and adoring the God behind the gift, we long for more of the same, and worry that we won’t have it in the future. We considered this lack of contentment a few weeks ago, citing Ecclesiastes 5:10 among others:
Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income (NIV).
Finally, even seeing the God behind every pleasure can lead to the trap of spiritual pride.
I can sit on my porch, rejoicing in the day, thinking, “These fresh smells of spring, that light breeze on my cheek, lead me to praise God. Isn’t that wonderful! I am so much more spiritually attuned than those around me!” Such pride is a close kin to that exhibited by the Pharisee in Jesus’ story about him and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).
3) Pleasure to the Glory of God: Asking the Right Questions
Here, then, are questions to ask yourself to help you to make the right use of the pleasures in your life, while avoiding the traps:
- How can I cultivate from every pleasure thanksgiving to God and adoration of God? Do I recognize every pleasure as a gift I don’t deserve from the One who loves me more than I can imagine?
- Have I used pleasure and entertainment as distractions from reality, even from God Himself? Can I instead plan enjoyable events that will ground me in reality, and serve other purposes God has for my life?
For example, if I tend to live in a Christian bubble, having little contact with non-Christians, can I spend some of my time devoted to recreation doing what I enjoy with non-Christians?
Or, if I am having a hard time finding time to be with my children, can I share some of my recreation or exercise time with them?
- The budgeting question: How much time and money am I spending on pleasure and entertainment? Is that overall amount consistent with what the Bible teaches? Do I really believe Jesus’ statement, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), and does my budget reflect that?Is the way I’m spending that budgeted amount the most effective at prompting thanksgiving and adoration, building up my relationships with family and friends, and restoring my energy so that I can effectively serve where God placed me
Beware of cultural pressures and expectations in this area, especially when planning big events like weddings and graduations. Entire industries exist to try to get you to spend lots of money when you are not considering the opportunity cost of those expenditures. In such situations, don’t worry about the expectations others may have. Decide what would be important and meaningful to you, what will help you to make lifelong memories, and spend money in those areas. Then save in other areas.
The point is not necessarily, “Spend less on entertainment.” Rather, spend your entertainment budget wisely.
Close your eyes. Think of some specific pleasure you experienced in the last couple of days. Acknowledge that that pleasure was completely undeserved. For Scripture tells us that God created us for His glory, yet we turned our backs on Him. Indeed, the first sin, the most fundamental sin, was thinking we know better than God how we can find joy, fulfillment, and pleasure. And wages of that sin – the just response to the sin we all have committed – is death, the absence of everything good. Yet God in His mercy gives us life, breath, and everything – including that recent, undeserved pleasure.
So thank Him for that pleasure. Adore the One who created and offered you that pleasure.
Then respond to His invitation. For He calls you:
- “Come to Me, where you will find pleasures forevermore.
- “Come to Me: And you will find right now, in this life, in relationship to me, more joy than you ever thought possible.
- “Come to me via the sacrifice of my Son on the cross, and His death will pay the penalty for all your sins, so that you can be the object of my delight. And I will rejoice to do you good forevermore.”
That’s the God we have.
That’s the God we are to love with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind, and all our strength.
That’s the God we are to glorify in all that we do, even in eating and drinking.
So come to Him – and may every joy then lead to – and be – adoration of Him.
April 4, 2014
[This Sunday we consider Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 6:17 that God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy.” No one has influenced my understanding of this phrase more than C.S. Lewis. What follows are excerpts from chapter 17 of his Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (if this sounds familiar, I included about two-thirds of these excerpts in a post last fall honoring Lewis on the 50th anniversary of his death). Ponder these ideas – and then make every pleasure into a channel of adoration. – Coty]
It’s comical that you, of all people, should ask my views about prayer as worship or adoration. On this subject you yourself taught me nearly all I know. . . .
You first taught me the great principle, “Begin where you are.” I had thought one had to start by summoning up what we believe about the goodness and greatness of God, by thinking about creation and redemption and “all the blessings of this life.” You turned to the brook and once more splashed your burning face and hands in the little waterfall and said, “Why not begin with this?”
And it worked. Apparently you have never guessed how much. That cushiony moss, that coldness and sound and dancing light were no doubt very minor blessings compared with “the means of grace and the hope of glory.” But then they were manifest. So far as they were concerned, sight had replaced faith. They were not the hope of glory; they were an exposition of the glory itself.
Yet you were not – or so it seemed to me – telling me that “Nature,” or “the beauties of Nature,” manifest the glory. No such abstraction as “Nature” comes into it. I was learning the far more secret doctrine that pleasures are shafts of the glory as it strikes our sensibility. As it impinges on our will or our understanding, we give it different names-goodness or truth or the like. But its flash upon our senses and mood is pleasure.
But aren’t there bad, unlawful pleasures? Certainly there are. But in calling them “bad pleasures” I take it we are using a kind of shorthand. We mean “pleasures snatched by unlawful acts.” It is the stealing of the apple that is bad, not the sweetness. The sweetness is still a beam from the glory. That does not palliate the stealing. It makes it worse. There is sacrilege in the theft. We have abused a holy thing.
I have tried, since that moment, to make every pleasure into a channel of adoration. I don’t mean simply by giving thanks for it. One must of course give thanks, but I mean something different. How shall I put it?
We can’t – or I can’t – hear the song of a bird simply as a sound. Its meaning or message (“That’s a bird”) comes with it inevitably-just as one can’t see a familiar word in print as a merely visual pattern. The reading is as involuntary as the seeing. When the wind roars I don’t just hear the roar; I “hear the wind.” In the same way it is possible to “read” as well as to “have” a pleasure. Or not even “as well as.” The distinction ought to become, and sometimes is, impossible; to receive it and to recognise its divine source are a single experience. This heavenly fruit is instantly redolent of the orchard where it grew. This sweet air whispers of the country from whence it blows. It is a message. We know we are being touched by a finger of that right hand at which there are pleasures for evermore. There need be no question of thanks or praise as a separate event, something done afterwards. To experience the tiny theophany is itself to adore.
Gratitude exclaims, very properly, “How good of God to give me this.” Adoration says: “What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations are like this!” One’s mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun.
If I could always be what I aim at being, no pleasure would be too ordinary or too usual for such reception; from the first taste of the air when I look out of the window–one’s whole cheek becomes a sort of palate – down to one’s soft slippers at bedtime.
I don’t always achieve it. One obstacle is inattention. Another is the wrong kind of attention. One could, if one practised, hear simply a roar and not the roaring-of-the-wind. In the same way, only far too easily, one can concentrate on the pleasure as an event in one’s own nervous system—subjectify it—and ignore the smell of Deity that hangs about it. A third obstacle is greed. Instead of saying, “This also is Thou,” one may say the fatal word Encore. There is also conceit: the dangerous reflection that not everyone can find God in a plain slice of bread and butter, or that others would condemn as simply “grey” the sky in which I am delightedly observing such delicacies of pearl and dove and silver. . . .
One must learn to walk before one can run. So here. We-or at least I-shall not be able to adore God on the highest occasions if we have learned no habit of doing so on the lowest. At best, our faith and reason will tell us that He is adorable, but we shall not have found Him so, not have “tasted and seen.” Any patch of sunlight in a wood will show you something about the sun which you could never get from reading books on astronomy. These pure and spontaneous pleasures are “patches of Godlight” in the woods of our experience. . . .
I do not think that the life of Heaven bears any analogy to play or dance in respect of frivolity. I do think that while we are in this “valley of tears,” cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzlings, and anxieties, certain qualities that must belong to the celestial condition have no chance to get through, can project no image of themselves, except in activities which, for us here and now, are frivolous. . . . It is only in our “hours-off,” only in our moments of permitted festivity, that we find an analogy [to the joys of heaven]. Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant down here; for “down here” is not their natural place. Here, they are a moment’s rest from the life we were placed here to live. But in this world everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven.
From Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1963-64), chapter 17, p. 88-93. Italics are in the original; boldface is my emphasis.